There are two gospel passages regarding John the beloved disciple that I find intriguing. Both passages are found at the end of John’s gospel. The first passage regards the empty tomb. It is Mary of Magdala, in the twentieth chapter, who is the first to find the tomb open and empty. Fearing that someone had stolen the body of Christ she runs to Peter and John.
And she said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have laid him.”
Peter then set out with the other disciple (John) to go to the tomb. They ran together but the other disciple outran Peter and reach the tomb first. He bent down and saw the linen cloths lying flat, but he did not enter.
Then Simon Peter came following him and entered the tomb; he too, saw the linen cloths lying flat. The napkin, which had been around his head was not lying flat like the other linen cloths but lay rolled up in its place. Then the other disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and believed.
The theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar has a wonderful take on this passage. Both Peter and John in this chapter of John’s gospel represent different facets of the Church. Peter represents the authoritative, hierarchical nature of the Church while John represents the mystical, contemplative side. Both facets need one another and interact with one another. The mystical, contemplative may reach the mystery first (as John reached the empty tomb ahead of Peter) but here it waits (and this is important) for the hierachical and authoritative side to catch up and enter first. In the ways of faith, there are disciples (men and women) who are ahead of the curve but their discipleship is not just demonstrated in being ahead of the rest (“Hey, look at me!”) but also in the awareness of being part of a larger whole, which is the Church. We go to Christ and we encounter the mystery together.
Now, the second passage builds off of the symbolism found in this first passage. This passage comes in the twenty-first chapter of John. The risen Lord has just asked Peter three times if he loves him. Following this exchange we are told that,
Peter looked back and saw that the disciple Jesus loved was following as well, the one who had reclined close to Jesus at the supper and had asked him, “Lord, who is to betray you?” On seeing him Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain until I come, does that concern you? Follow me.”
Because of this the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus had not said to Peter, “He will not die,” but “suppose I want him to remain until I come.”
Throughout the history of the Church there have been, and will continue to be, men and women whose authority comes not from the authority of apostolic succession (which is indeed fundamental and at the heart of the structure of the Church) but from the authority of reclining “close to Jesus at the supper“. The Church needs the authority of the saints just as much as it needs the authority of the magisterium. Sometimes the two come together – we find this is the enduring witness of the episcopal and papal saints of the Church – but they do not have to.
Sometimes those whose authority comes from reclining on the breast of Christ will not immediately be recognized and may even be questioned by the rest of the Church. “Lord, what about him?” asked Peter. Sometimes these men and women (and we have seen this in the history of our faith) suffer at the very hands of others in the Church but it is precisely here that another important aspect of those whose authority comes from reclining close to Jesus is demonstrated – just as much as they love Christ, they love the Church. This aspect is indeed worthy of reflection and, I believe, an important witness to our time with its attitude of cutting losses and moving on.
If we love Christ then we must love the Church. What kind of friend would say to a friend, “I love you but I hate what you love.” Christ loves the Church, his heart beats for the Church (even in all of its continuing need of purification) and it is precisely the ones who recline at the breast of Christ who know this truth. They hear it in the very heartbeat of Christ. They love the Church enough to even suffer at the hands of others in the Church if need be and to suffer from the actions of others in the Church. They will not leave because they know that we go to Christ and we encounter the mystery together. We are indeed part of something bigger than ourselves and these blessed men and women witness this truth to us.
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain until I come, does that concern you?” There have been and continue to be men and women in the Church whose authority comes from reclining near Jesus at supper. John has much to teach us. Thank God for these beloved disciples and for the fullness of their witness!